Lawmakers Urge Jena 6 Probe
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
Today, the Congressional Black Caucus kicks off its annual legislative conference. Some lawmakers met with the family of Jena Six member Mychal Bell. He remains in jail although courts have overturned his convictions. Also today, Martin Luther King III, Reverend Al Sharpton and other black activists meet with Louisiana's governor about the case.
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee hosted a press conference with Bell's parents and other CBC members on Tuesday. I asked the Democrat from Texas about the focus on Bell.
Representative SHEILA JACKSON LEE (Democrat, Texas): Victory starts with one step. Mychal Bell is one step, but he is a person at this point that is incarcerated, who is in the eye of the public, whose case is so egregious that it is a galvanizer, if you will.
But looking at his case broadens the concept of the idea of a broken system. Why are African-American males in particular are the father for the criminal justice system? Why are there not alternative fixes to young men who have lost their way particularly juveniles?
And so this is a case that opens the eyes of the American public, but more importantly, the legislature. So no, I don't think that we are narrowly focusing on Mychal Bell. I think Mychal Bell is the, if you will, the significant point of synergism that brings all of the emotions and frustrations and sympathetic viewpoints to try to help a young man in his immediate crisis.
But we're not going to finish with this. This has been too devastating to leave the case solely on the shoulders of Mychal and his release. It has to be broadened. And I believe you've seen the igniting of a movement of our young people who came from all over America to Jena, Louisiana. College students on buses from my district - Texas Southern University - outstanding energy in the schools today saying, as I've said, enough is enough.
CHIDEYA: What do you have planned ahead? I know there's been a call for hearings. What do you want to happen in the near future?
Rep. LEE: Well clearly, we want Mr. Mychal Bell released. We would like to have - I personally would like to have the felony charges dismissed. I'd like to have the charges of the other Jena Five reconsidered. We do not condone schoolyard violence, but it is clear that the governmental structure of Jena, Louisiana failed the community. The school district failed by not addressing the white tree, if you will, the hanging nooses, the fights that occurred beforehand, the beating up of a black student. They have a failed system and they need (unintelligible) reconciliation.
But the other plot of our work has to be with insisting that the federal government do the work that it is supposed to do. The federal government is the rainy day umbrella when the nation is in crisis. We don't have a functioning civil rights division in the Department of Justice under this administration. It is imperative that we begin extensive oversights to demand that the civil rights division do its work - begin to prosecute cases that show a direct violation of one's civil rights.
I would argue vigorously today that Mychal is an example of his rights being denied. He is now being held without bail. And frankly, could be released. Even if there is a state law to suggest that he has a stand on the appeal, and the reason is because the district attorney, there is a question whether or not he is not acting in good faith. By appealing this and taking a very long time to do so, which will keep Mr. Bell incarcerated. That's a violation of Mr. Bell's civil rights.
So we have to get the civil rights division functioning. We have to demand the president to demand of his agency to do the job constitutionally that is required by the agency. Then we need to write legislation that reviews prosecutorial abuse across America. It is happening across America. We're not letting this go to the over side hearing. It is more powerful than one might think.
And we are very, very grateful that in this new Congress - Democratic Congress - John Conyers is now chair of the committee. And it's evident by the work we've done on the U.S. attorneys, the work that we've done with attorney general - former Attorney General Gonzales that this committee is serious and doing its work on behalf of the American people.
CHIDEYA: That was Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas.
We also contacted the office of Jay Reid Walters, the district attorney handling the Jean Six case for a response. Walter's office is under a gag order. It provided only a transcript to the DA's last public statement made a week ago. It reiterates Walters' widely broadcast words that the case, quote, "is not and never has been about race." Walters also says he has not decided whether to appeal the overturning of Bell's conviction to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
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